There’s a business in your pocket.

By Karl Traunm??ller, CEO Intumi Software

This story starts on August 1, 2002, when I founded Mobile7 (now Intumi). I always wanted to do products, so I loftily, unabashedly, and without much thinking declared freshly-born Mobile7 a product business.

My first product (or, so I thought) was a software-rendering Web 3D engine called cyan, written in Java. It was basically 3D in your browser, which was in itself already terribly cool, but also a big hype at that time. I wrote cyan in my spare-time, alongside my 40-hour job as a programmer. After a year of coding late nights, I thought I was ready for prime-time, so I quit my job, launched a web site, and sat down waiting for the money to start pouring in.

To make a long story short: I sold it exactly once, with my then-partner, to german synthesizer manufacturer access music. Paiment came a short while later in form of a brand-new, sparkling Access Virus Indigo II synthesizer.

Yep, a synth. Nope, no cash.

What went wrong? Cyan was solid from a technological perspective, but it was at most a piece of core technology, not a product by any means. Most importantly, it (or, more precisely, I) lacked a decent business model. So only a few months after pursuing that route, I found myself nearly out of money, hard pressed to try something else.

Side note: You can still find cyan on the web, for example here. Just click the 3D animation link. Now, isn’t that cool?? Yeah, but guess what, it earned me no money!! Anyway, I don’t regret trying this out, as it it didn’t kill me after all, and I learned a hell lot about 3D graphics, and what it means trying to market a product.

By a lucky incident, I got my first job as a consultant around that time. It generated some money (which was more than welcome), and after a few months, I found myself accepting about every job offer that came along, doing everything from .NET desktop applications, ASP .NET Web projects, to C++ apps on the Pocket PC (Remember: if the going gets tough, you can always make some quick money as a consultant rather easily). This was a period in my life which can neatly be summed up by the words “complete lack of any vision”. I was just wandering around, trying to get paid for anything anybody possibly wanted.

Then, in late 2004, I faced a little problem: for tax purposes, I had to take notes of my business trips. Mileage, purpose of trip, and such. I jotted down all my business trips in a little paper notebook I kept in my car, like everybody else did. At the end of the year, I had to transcribe those paper notebooks into Excel, to prepare everything for submission to the tax office.

Now that was a real pain.

Although it took me only about an hour or two each year to transcribe those little notebooks, I deeply, genuinely hated it. This stupid work just sucked.

So, one day, I thought there must be some better approach, something more comfortable, something less painful. Some software thingy, probably. Then I realized, hey, I’m a programmer, I can do this! So I sat down to write a little application for my Pocket PC, a travel log, which should allow me to collect my trips, and later export them to a CSV file at the press of a button, without all the transcription hassle. Just for myself, just to ease my pain.

Thus, IntumiLog was born. My first real product, as I realized soon afterwards. If I felt this pain, probably other people would feel it as well. So I packaged IntumiLog into an installer and called up a beta program. I got an incredible number of things wrong, with beta 1 refusing to even install, but I finally managed to release IntumiLog 1.0 after some really embarassing mistakes in January 2005, and soon afterwards started selling it for $14.99 on several Pocket PC portals. At that time, I renamed my business to Intumi, because I figured I needed a cute .com domain in this shiny new shareware world, and mobile7.com was already taken.

It took me a while to realize what transformation I had just undergone: I had found a niche (Pocket PC applications) and a business model (shareware) which both fit me perfectly. As a little (read: one-man) company, I finally came to the conclusion that I’d better do something literally small, with the Pocket PC platform being a perfectly reasonable choice. And I never felt like I wanted to employ programmers (I feel more comfortable working alone), so a business model, if any, would have to fit my “work alone” attitude, which shareware neatly did. As such, I happened to find a business in my pocket. And it has been there all the time, humming along idly, waiting to get discovered.

I have absolutely no clue why it took me over two years to get this vision thing straight, but I felt more and more cushy and confident with what I was doing. I started reading books on marketing and business models (something I, as an uptight techie, refused to do in the past), and it slowly dawned on me that this new approach to doing business seemed to make perfect sense.

Then, a few months later, I felt another pain. Like the majority of Pocket PC owners, I use my PDA mainly for appointments. The default calendar on most Pocket PCs is Microsoft Pocket Outlook, which is…um, how shall I put it…kinda awkward. I felt it required way too many clicks into context menus to enter a single darned appointment. Things like that, little inconveniences, which however summed up into quite a bit of annoyance over time.

You guessed it, I sat down once again to code up what came to be known as IntumiCal, a Pocket Outlook replacement. I tried to improve upon previous mistakes, and generally tried to be more cautious and professional when releasing IntumiCal 1.0 in August 2005. And it really hit a nerve. Response has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic, with people praising the user interface, and the minimalistic approach in general.

So we’re back in February 2006, and I’m currently trying to get IntumiCal 1.1 beta 2 out of the door. Generally speaking, I’m more than happy with how things are progressing. IntumiCal is slowly turning into a really nice product (1.1 is going to be one hell of a release), and everything is getting better each day. I’m even on the verge of getting a Google Page-rank of 4, after months of rolling along with a meager Page-rank of 3 :) It’s still a long way down the road, and all my bills are still getting paid from consulting work, but it just feels the right thing to do.

To sum things up, here are some points I learned the hard way:

  • The pitch
    If you want to earn money, you’d better have something other people want. This may be soft factors like usability, or hard factors like features. In any case, you should be able to communicate your point in one or two sentences. If you need 10 minutes to explain me your product or service, or why I should prefer it over the competition’s, you’re lost (and probably a techie who just sees the sparkling new technology, not the problem at hand). This elevator pitch thing may sound stupid, but it hits the bull’s eye.
  • Business model
    To keep you afloat, you’d better have a sound business model at hand, something that generates revenue. In case you find yourself more on the product side of things, the shareware business model is perfect for little software shops.
  • Narrow your focus
    By restricting yourself to seemingly negligible segments of the market at first, you can come up with something really special for that segments. Later on, you might want to try expanding into other segments, but for starters just focus, focus, focus. It’s all about deciding what to leave out, not what to put in.
  • Think bold
    Don’t fear Microsoft taking you over. They didn’t care about improving the Pocket PC calendar for the past 10 years or so, and they won’t care in the future. I just know they don’t even consider Pocket Outlook broken or inadequate, because it’s their (Microsoft) way of thinking. So sit down and do it the way you think it should be done, even if you’re going to compete against Microsoft. Don’t forget, it’s incredible what a handful of talented programmers can come up with.
  • Get the details right
    Companies like 37signals get tremendous attention for just getting the details right. CreativeDocs .NET is another example: just watch how the context menu fades in, or how combos drop down. Everything feels just right. I’m myself a control freak, too, I want to have control over every single pixel drawn on the screen. So I rolled my own user interface toolkit, replacing standard message boxes, and about everything else in the user interface. Completely non-functional work, but I simply cannot do otherwise. It just needs to look right, and feel right.
  • Do what you love
    You’ll be best at it. Don’t be overly rational, just pursue what you love. Give it a try.

Thanks for your time,
Karl Traunm??ller

Book/link recommendations:

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Karl makes his home in Linz, Austria and can be reached at: office@intumi.com.

Comments

  1. This is an excellent article. Thanks!

    However, I don’t aggree with the part about not having employees. Having a business without having employees means having a business without having a business.

    Also, it’s not clear from the article why your Web 3D stuff didn’t sell. You could offer the product for sale to web designers.

  2. Arc,

    going without employess is (at least for me) simply a life-style choice, nothing more. It’s just the way I prefer it for the moment. If the business grows, and revenue permits it, I’ll look out for employees, but not earlier.

    The Web 3D stuff didn’t sell because a) it solved no immediate pain (just a shiny, widgety thing with no measurable returns), b) we turned out to be really bad at selling :) and c) probably because I didn’t push this thing enough to make it a product. Turning this bunch of core technology into a real product (with authoring tools and such) would have been another year or so of little or no revenue. I think you have to pick something that fits your size (and which you can fund through to completion), and this was just too big. So I gave up on this, and I think that was ok. Web 3D has never become mainstream.

    thanks,
    Karl